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Part 23: Nasiraan ako ng bangka sa bukas na dagat malapit sa isla ng Lubang

Philippines 2019 - Shipwrecked

Nasiraan ako ng bangka sa bukas na dagat malapit sa isla ng Lubang
(I was Shipwrecked in the Open Sea off Lubang Island)

by John Mahaffey

We all said our goodbyes to Dave on the grounds of the port of "The Tuna Fishing Capital of the Philippines" after enjoying tuna steaks together. Dave’s flight from Gen San to Cebu was the first part of his return to Zambia which would take him on to Hong Kong, then Johannesburg, then finally to Lusaka where he would see Sandy again.

The following day we flew with the Gerics and Villanuevas to the town of Coron in the island archipelago of Palawan for a few days of sightseeing, rest and relaxation. As our plane arched southwestward out of Manila Bay, I faintly heard the pilot announce that our flight would take us over Lubang Island before landing in Coron. On hearing this my thoughts went back to the early part of May in 1987.

Lubang is a sparsely populated island with one small town where the majority of people are either farmers or fishermen. Historically, it is insignificant in the long history of the Philippines, but there is one thing which brought Lubang Island much fame and international attention in 1975.  For several years the villagers complained to the local authorities that there was a man who would raid their farms in the night and steal chickens and pigs. No one could get a good description of the man, but over time they became convinced the man was not Filipino.

In 1944, the Japanese Army placed a small reconnaissance team on Lubang island to monitor any American Naval or Air Force activity and inform their superiors in Manila. In the fast paced flurry of battle that raged with the American landings in Leyte Gulf and then the fierce house to house fighting for the liberation of Manila, insignificant places like Lubang were ignored and by-passed by the Americans and Filipino resistance fighters. For the next 31 years, a Japanese soldier named Onoda, who still believed the war was on, hid in the jungle and managed to allude the Philippine authorities. When the people could stomach no longer his continued thievery of their chickens, the Philippine Marines were called on to flush him out of the jungle. But Onoda had set booby traps and a few Marines were seriously injured. After discovering Onoda’s name, the Marines cautiously patrolled the jungle using megaphones to inform him that the war was over. But Onoda refused to reveal himself or his position. After consulting Japanese authorities, it was discovered that Onoda’s commanding officer was still alive in Japan and, in a cooperative effort between the Philippines and Japan, the commanding officer joined the Philippine Marines at the general area where it was believed Onoda was still hiding. Using a megaphone, he commanded Onoda to come out of the jungle and surrender. Within minutes, Onoda appeared and surrendered himself, his rifle and samurai sword. Later, he was taken to Malacanuang Palace in Manila where he was introduced to the then Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos,  who received his sword and pardoned him for his sins against the Filipino people.

I arrived in Lubang 12 years after Onoda surrendered along with 14 Filipino pastors. A dear brother named Jesse Quindoza had asked me to be the speaker for this camping trip with these pastors. For the few days we were there we camped alongside the small river close to where Onoda hid himself and finally surrendered. During those days, the Filipino pastors cracked many a joke about Onoda. We all imagined what it must have been like for him to survive in this remote place. With the passing of years, my memories of this time on Lubang have faded, but one thing remains deeply etched in my mind - I was shipwrecked off Lubang Island.

On the morning of our departure, we hiked back in to the town of Looc and, after buying some coconuts and bananas to enjoy on the four hour trip by bangka to the mainland, we proceeded immediately to the small port where several small fishing vessels were berthed. It took a few minutes to load our back packs into the boat and the bangkero (captain of the boat) carefully placed the coconuts under the three narrow planks that ran the 18 feet length of the vessel. Then the 15 of us joined the bangkero and his assistant in the boat and sat facing each other with our bums hanging slightly over the gunnel on both sides. With our knees locked together we all occupied the no more than 12 inches designated for each of us (to imagine what this looked like, try to picture an 18 foot narrow canoe equipped with bamboo pontoons on both sides to give it stability in the sea. In the middle of the boat is a diesel engine connected to a long shaft which runs to the back of the boat where it is connected to a small propeller). Packed together like sardines, we joked with each other about the “joys of close fellowship.” I quickly noticed that there were no life jackets on board.

It was a bright sunny day and as we exited the port we rejoiced in the cool sea breeze that provided some bodily comfort to our cramped sea going container. And then, when we were out into the open water with Lubang quickly disappearing from our sight, our small boat soared smoothly over the waves rising high and then low through the billows that exceeded 5 feet with each roll. Realizing that these conditions would slow our arrival on the mainland, we resigned ourselves to the added time of close fellowship and then it happened.

I was becoming accustomed to the roller coaster like ride, up and down over the rolls of water, when suddenly it seemed our boat decided to proceed through the wave instead of over it. It happened in an instant, but everything was in slow motion. The sudden crash of enveloping white water; the frantic splashing of others around me; the deafening silence of 15 men in shock; and then this sobering thought - “First it was Don, now it's me!”

In 1974, I led my friend Don Grady to Christ. In 1986, at the age of 29, he entered heaven. He and his wife Brenda were missionaries with Arab World Ministries in Fez, Morocco. When their daughter Natalie was just 6 months old, Don contracted hepatitis B. His illness was misdiagnosed in Morocco and after further complications the mission had him evacuated to Marseille, France, but the medical attention he so desperately needed came too late. Soon after arriving in France, he suffered cardiac arrest and he was gone. Don’s death had a profound impact on me. I had just returned to the Philippines for our second term of service when news reached me of his death. It was a forceful reminder of what can be the cost of missionary service. As I struggled to hang on to the submerged wreckage of our boat, I honestly thought I might follow Don in death.

Jessie Quindoza’s strong voice rallied us to our senses. “Is everyone okay?” he shouted over the confusion. “Tie your backpacks on to the pontoons.” Everyone immediately complied except me.  Not being a strong swimmer, I reasoned that I should conserve my strength and not do anything that wasn’t absolutely imperative to my survival. Just hanging on was hard enough. Then he shouted, “Okay, brothers, let's pray.” With all of the strength of his lungs he bellowed out, “Lord Jesus! Save us!” Like a choir well practiced to respond in unison to the choir director, we shouted out, “Yes, Lord!” All through the Scripture we read of times when God’s people were in great trouble and we come across phrases like “they cried out to the Lord.” For the first time in my life I felt I understood exactly what this meant.  We CRIED OUT to the Lord. After praying, we shared words of encouragement with each other. Mars Mirabuenos was directly beside me and I noticed a tension in his face unlike the others. In Tagalog I asked him, “Marunong ka bang lumangoy?” (Do you know how to swim?) He immediately blurted out, “Palagay ko, matututo ko ngayon” (I think I’m going to learn now). At this point the movement of the waves on the submerged boat loosened the planks that covered the propeller shaft. Without warning, 15 submerged coconuts shot straight upward out of the water like cannonballs out of a cannon. And then the law of gravity kicked in (what goes up must come down) and the coconuts came crashing down around us. Mercifully, none of them struck our heads.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I noticed my backpack floating on the surface not far from us. As I watched it float further and further away, I suddenly remembered that I had placed an air mattress inside it. Realizing how helpful this could be to all of us, without hesitating, I darted off into the water to retrieve it before the waves would carry it beyond my sight. I opened it and to my dismay discovered that the air mattress was in the bottom of the pack. I pulled desperately at the tightly packed clothing and threw a pair of jeans and several pairs of underwear  into the sea. None of my belongings mattered to me - all I wanted was the air mattress. Pulling it from the backpack, I searched for the air nozzle and with deep thrusts of air from my lungs I watched in pleasure as the crumpled up mattress began to take shape before my eyes. Throwing myself and the drenched empty backpack onto the inflated mattress, I turned in the water to make my way back to my companions. I looked straight ahead; then to the left and right; then behind me, but as my eyes scanned the horizon where the sky touched the sea I could not find them. I prayed again and before I could say “amen” the waves lifted them into my sight and with all my might I paddled a beeline toward them for a happy reunion.

Relieved that I was no longer separated from these dear brothers and the flotsam and jetsam we shared with each other, I entered again into the encouraging conversation as we all tried to lift each others' spirits. One of the brothers, Ef Bryon, was an avid subscriber to Reader's Digest and he began to recount for us the many stories he had read of people who were rescued having once been lost at sea. Ef was quite a storyteller and with each dramatic inflection of his voice we listened attentively as he suspense-fully told the stories moving back and forth from Tagalog to English with ease. The last story he told remains stuck in my memory. It was about a man from Denmark who was rescued out of the North Sea after clinging to a hunk of ice for over 24 hours. As he wrapped up the story telling, I thought to myself that Reader's Digest only tells the stories of those who survive!

Off in the distance, we spotted an island and it was clear that the current was drifting us closer to it, but within minutes we realized that the current would take us by it out into the vast waters of the South China Sea toward Vietnam. And I didn’t want to go to Vietnam! At this point we toyed with the idea of leaving the wreckage of the boat and the buoyancy of the bamboo pontoons and swimming toward the island possibly using the air mattress for each of us to take turns resting. I looked at the island and pondered the possibility. I am sure that if my life depended on it I could swim twice, maybe even four times as far as I normally can, but this island was certainly beyond my physical strength. And the sea’s current would only take us pass the island leaving us without the benefit of the submerged boat. Everything seemed impossible.

After what seemed like hours, we noticed the smoke of a vessel on the horizon. Jessie then called on me to pray that the boat would come our way and those on board would see and rescue us. Again we cried out to the Lord. I remember the words I prayed, “Lord, when you walked this earth you opened the eyes of the blind. We ask that in your mercy you would now direct the eyes of the seeing toward us.” We were in anguish as the boat moved further away. We soon realized that we were nothing more than a dot on the water. Somehow our dot-like outline in the water needed to be raised higher within view. The bangkero took a slim bamboo pole, a white T-shirt was attached to it and they began to wave it back and forth. There was no change in the direction of the boat. With all the energy and strength I possessed, I pulled myself on to the wreckage and spread my legs apart standing on each side of the gunnels. They handed the pole to me and as I waved it back and forth there was a simultaneous cacophony of voices in English and Tagalog shouting, “Lord, save us!”

“Praise the Lord,” one of the brothers shouted, “the boat is turning!” We cheered and watched as the boat drew near, but it stayed about 100 metres away and circled us several times. It was clear the men on board this fishing boat were debating whether or not to come closer and help us. Our hearts began to sink and again we cried out to the Lord. Then we heard the motor grow quiet as the boat maneuvered slowly and came alongside us. A few of the men jumped in to the water with ropes and used them to pull the wreckage and us in closer. After lifting our backpacks on to the boat and then pulling my body up and over the side, it dawned on me just how fatigued I was. It was then the captain of the fishing boat expressed his amazement that we were all alive when he said, “Naku, napakaraming pating dito!” (There are many sharks in this part of the sea). One week later several people were killed by sharks in the same area when a ferry collided with another boat and many fell overboard.

The fishing boat that rescued us now became a place of rejoicing. My Filipino companions now explained to me why they would not allow their tsinelas (flip flops) to float away from their feet while we were in the water. My flip flops were the first thing I lost in the water, but I noticed that they would check their feet from time to time to ensure they were still on. Jessie explained to me the superstition that sharks are attracted to the white underside of people's feet. If feet are covered then the sharks turn away. Seeing that I was the “whitest” person there and did not have my feet covered, they joked, “We were glad you were with us because we knew the sharks would attack you first. You were the appetizer!” To which I quickly replied, “If I was the appetizer then you were the main course!”

The bangkero of the fishing boat had never seen an air mattress before. He hinted several times that he wanted it. I wasn’t about to argue with the man who had just rescued us, so I happily gave it to him as my gift of appreciation for all he had done for us. When I questioned him about why they had circled us cautiously he explained that there had been several incidents of pirates who would purposely sink small boats in areas where fishing boats pass by. When larger boats approached to rescue them, the pirates would draw assault rifles wrapped in plastic out of the water, shoot the fishermen, and commandeer their boats. He then said when they saw me, a foreigner, standing on the wreckage, they reasoned that this was not a group of pirates. That day I became the best friend of my 14 companions.

Because of the size of our rescue boat, we arrived at the beach on the mainland ahead of schedule. Its large engine and sleek, sturdy frame plowed through the waves at breakneck speed. The drop off at the beach presented me with another challenge. Before me was a black sand beach of 300-plus metres. The midday sun turned the sand into a massive hot plate - and I didn’t have any protection for my bare feet. I had only taken a few short steps when the pain on my soles became unbearable. I quickly threw my empty back pack onto the sand and stood on it. “Now what?,” I thought to myself. “How am I going to cross the beach?” Because I was the last one off the boat, my Filipino friends had all gone ahead of me and they were oblivious to my circumstances. Grateful now that I had rescued my backpack, I threw it ahead of me as far as I could and hopped, skipped and jumped on to the pack before my feet were fried. I paused for a few second to let my feet cool off until I repeated the process again and again. Off in the near distance, I saw Filipino children laughing at the crazy foreigner jumping across the beach in the hot sand.

Arriving at the market, I pulled the wet pesos out of my pocket and purchased a pair of flip flops to begin my four hour journey home by bus. Coming to the door of our house in Baliwag was an emotional moment for me. In light of all that I had experienced, I really needed a “Hollywood “ moment. You know, that scene in the movie when the two lovers lock eyes and in slow motion run toward each other with arms outstretched and tears steaming down their cheeks. Then she leaps into his strong arms and they kiss passionately. Well, when I walked through the door, I told Andrea that I had almost drowned and all I got was “Ya, right.” But when she saw the crusted salt on my clothes and hearing the emotion in my voice, she realized I was not kidding - and yes I got the kiss!

Grateful that Jesus is still the Lord of the waves.

- John